Correct Livelihood

Statue from Metropolitan Museum

(The first two paragraphs are an excerpt from a work in process dealing with engaged Buddhism.) Correct Livelihood is a particularly tough one in our highly interlinked and increasingly complex world, especially for those of us who came relatively late to the Teachings, after we had settled into a career that involved our learned skills and creative powers, and while we were still obliged to fulfill our duties as householders.

The Teachings tell us that Correct Livelihood rejects dealing in living beings, including both the slave trade and prostitution, as well as the raising of animals for slaughter or other misuse, dealing in weapons, in meat production and butchery, in poisons, and in intoxicants. The teachings further identify as wrong livelihood practices that involve trickery or exploitation, including fortune-telling and usury. But what about working as a night clerk at a convenience store to pay one’s way through college? That involves selling beer and cigarettes, charging exploitative prices for things like phone cards, selling lottery tickets, and handling a variety of publications that are full of lies, sexual pandering, and ill will. And just about any employment with a multinational corporation, no matter how benign one’s job duties might seem to be, involves one with an organization that is almost certainly, in one place or another, with one arm or another, dealing out poison, deception, exploitation and environmental degradation. Even a job in academia is on shaky ground with regard to right livelihood, as colleges and universities succumb more and more willingly and completely to operating models based on continuing growth and the blind imperative of profitable revenues.

What we can do, I think, and perhaps, as Buddhists, must do, is use whatever power or authority we have gained in our position to keep the problems of right livelihood under active consideration within the organizations that employ us, and to insist that the motivations driving the practice of Correct Livelihood are honest and honorable and based on an accurate understanding of how the world works; moreover, if a corporation were to accept the directives of Correct Livelihood and alter their operations to reflect that acceptance, their long-term success would be more certain, their customers would be better served, and their workforce would be healthier and more productively involved. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for energetic action for someone working as a clerk or a server, but it doesn’t leave those people paralyzed either, especially if they can act with imagination and compassionate understanding of their co-workers.

Another difficulty presents itself to those of us who have left the workforce, not yet entered it, or are otherwise without a job. What is right livelihood under those circumstances? Here, I think, the answer lies in looking past our habitual identification of “livelihood” with “employment circumstances”. I think it’s clear, from the Buddha’s teaching to the householder Dighajanu, below, and from other passages in the Nikayas, that ājiīva involves more than just how you earn your money. When I consider Correct Livelihood for myself, I think of how I conduct myself to earn my position as a responsible member of society. It’s not just how I conduct myself as an employee to earn my wages, but how I conduct myself as a neighbor so that I am a worthwhile participant in the neighborhood; as a friend, so that I earn my place at the coffeeshop table; as a citizen, so that I do my part in maintaining social stability and political progress; and, most importantly for our purposes within this gathering, how I conduct myself within the sangha to help hold it together as a flourishing community.

We’re given, or we assume, many roles in the course of our lives: employee, employer, friend, neighbor, citizen, teacher, student, husband or wife or lover, son or daughter, parent, sibling. Every role that involves some reciprocal relationship with others also carries implications for Correct Livelihood. If I am to be good at that role, I must not be confrontative, exploitative, greedy, careless, or toxic in any sense; exact parallels to the exhortation to the lay follower in the Vanijja Sutta:

A very short sutta, in its entirety.

Wrong Livelihood

“Monks, a lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.

“These are the five types of business that a lay follower should not engage in.”

Anguttara Nikaya 5.177, Vanijja Sutta: Business (Wrong Livelihood), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu © 2001–2011

And here is his advice to another lay follower, whose busy and successful life pretty much precluded anything like intensive meditative practice or significant blocks of time spent studying the teachings.

This is my own translation of a passage from the Dighajanu Sutta, the Buddha’s advice to a wealthy businessman who had come to him asking for a Dhamma suitable for one like himself: “Lord, we are ordinary people, and we enjoy our pleasures. We’re family people, living with our wives and lots of kids running around. We decorate our homes with fine fabrics and fragrant sandalwood; we wear stylish clothes and expensive scents; we love gold and jewelry. Does the Awakened One have a Dhamma for people like us?” This is just part of the Buddha’s answer to Dighajanu. You can read the whole thing (which isn’t all that long) on the Dharma Study site.

The Buddha’s Advice to a Family Man

“There are four qualities, Dighajanu, that lead to a family man’s happiness and well-being in this life. Which four? Getting good at his job; getting good at protecting his wealth; keeping good company; and balancing the books.

“And what does it mean to be good at one’s job? No matter how a family man makes his living—farming or retailing or ranching; being a soldier or a bureaucrat or a craftsman—when he gets clever at it, sticks with it, understands what needs to be done and masters the skills to do that, gets help when he needs it, and follows through to see that every task is completed successfully, then that’s called being good at the job.

“And what does it mean to be good at protecting one’s wealth? That’s when a family man has gained a measure of wealth, Tiger—gained it righteously, on his own initiative, by diligent effort, by using all his strength and sticking with it through the long haul—and then manages to hold it together, with the idea that nobody, neither tax collectors nor thieves, is going to steal it, that fire won’t destroy it nor floods wash it away, that undeserving heirs will never get their hands on it. That’s called getting good at protecting wealth.

“And what does it mean to keep good company? Here, Tiger, no matter where a family man lives, in city or village, he spends his time with people—parents and children, young or old—whose lives are good in every sense. Those are the people he talks with and shares ideas with. He learns to trust by following those who have gotten good at trusting; he becomes virtuous by following those who live virtuously; he learns to be generous by following those who act generously; he becomes wise by following those who have attained wisdom. All that is called keeping good company.

“And what does it mean to balance the books? If a family man measures his income against his expenses and leads his life in accord with those measurements, neither extravagantly nor in miserly fashion, he will know that his income will exceed his expenses and that his expenses will not exceed his income.”

Dighajanu Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 8:54, translated by Richard Blumberg